ST Engineering iDirect CEO Don Claussen: Solving the Identity Question
In one of his first interviews since becoming CEO of ST Engineering iDirect, Don Claussen talks about the challenge to define the company's identity. With the satellite market in such a dynamic era, the stakes are high.
October 23, 2023
In January this year, Don Claussen was appointed the new CEO of ST Engineering iDirect at a pivotal moment in the company’s history as it looks to capitalize on demands for ground segment technology as we enter this new, multi-orbit era.
The company is one of the giants in this area. Its acquisition of leading European satellite ground technology company Newtec in 2019 was one of the biggest deals in the ground technology space. However, the acquisition came with its own challenges.
In one of his first interviews since becoming CEO, Claussen says one of the big challenges is for the new ST Engineering iDirect to establish its identity to make things easier for customers. With the satellite market in such a dynamic era, the stakes are high.
VIA SATELLITE: What attracted you to the position of CEO of ST Engineering iDirect?
Claussen: It started with an executive recruiter calling me about a CEO position. I reviewed the spec. It looked like iDirect, it smelled like iDirect. I signed the NDAs and got the proper paperwork, and it was iDirect. My history with iDirect goes back 20 years. I have a picture on my phone [from 2003] where I am in Afghanistan deploying iDirect Infiniti terminals. I have been a user of iDirect terminals. I have designed systems with them. I have competed with different product lines as I moved into the general management area and out of the technical fields, and I have worked at an operator who deployed iDirect. I have been a consumer of those goods and deploying them to end users. I had the view that it was a leader in the industry for the ground segment. I had good experiences with iDirect as a user. I thought it was a good opportunity for me to join a company that has an established brand, that maybe has a bit of an identity crisis, during a time where the market is changing. That is what really attracted me. This brand that I knew and a brand name that I really could drive some key changes in the market.
VIA SATELLITE: You mentioned an identity crisis. What do you mean by that?
Claussen: One of the first things I noticed when I started doing my research was an iDirect and Newtec logo. Clearly there was a bit of an identity crisis. There were competing product lines in some respects between Dialog and Velocity. It felt like it was maybe two different companies. So, based on the experiences I had on integrating different business units, I felt that I could bring value to the organization by bringing it back together and redefining what iDirect is. It is a platform and services provider for satellite operators.
VIA SATELLITE: Are you surprised they didn’t have the ‘identity crisis’ figured out already?
Claussen: You have two strong product lines that had pros and cons to both of them. Clearly, Dialog and the return link have very high speed and efficiency. In Velocity, you have global bandwidth management, best in class roaming, scalability, etc. It is not surprising there was an identity crisis because you had two really strong brands and product lines. It is really difficult to make a decision on where you want to go. Do you create a new product line? Do you choose one to build off of? I was not shocked, but surprised as it had been several years. These are hard decisions that have to be made. When you have two strong brands, strong products, you need to bring someone from the outside. There is no emotional filter in the way.
VIA SATELLITE: It is clear you feel the company needs to go down a new path?
Claussen: I heard that loud and clear at SATELLITE. The advantage of coming in right away at the beginning of the year is that SATELLITE was 60 days from when I started. I had my external views which I tried to park. I had 60 days before meeting all of our customers at SATELLITE. That allowed me to validate or invalidate some of the things I had learned and some of the things that I brought with me.
VIA SATELLITE: So, what was invalidated then?
Claussen: What was validated was ‘We need you. You are iDirect and we all rely upon you. We need to understand who you are and where you are going to go in the future.’ A lot of our customers have both product lines. They have Evolution, Velocity, and Dialog in their networks. They were waiting for us to tell them where we were going in the next three to five to 10 years and what that means to their current investments. So, that was the key validation. That and we still value you as a partner. They were telling us that we need to be clear with them and tell them where we are going.
VIA SATELLITE: What are your aspirations for the first 12-18 months in the role? What are your short to mid-term objectives?
Claussen: One of the things that is clear when meeting the customers — and this goes back to the identity crisis — is that they want to know who we are and what we are going to do going forward. This time next year we will be talking about our next-generation platform, which we are looking for a name for right now. This will drive the standards we have all been talking about in the industry. iDirect has standards-based products in its DNA, that is not a leap for us. But, really embracing what 3GPP is going to bring. We have a lot of demonstrations with DiFi driving those standards into the market, and then virtualization. At SATELLITE, we announced a proof of concept with DiFi standard, and we continued our proof of concept with MSFT on virtualization at AsiaTechX. This time next year we will be talking about the progress we have made on our next generation platform, driving those standards and the proofs of concept we have done along the way.
VIA SATELLITE: Could you give us some more details on that next generation platform and when you will have the name decided?
Claussen: I am hoping to have that name in the next 60 days. I want to do something different, so not legacy iDirect or Newtec. Something that I will call the ‘New iDirect.’ One team, one family of products driving industry standards and shifting the focus of the ground segment from what we have been focused on for the last 20 years — which is to seek out as much efficiency as you can on the waveform, get smaller hardware, consume less power — to how do we integrate the satcoms network into the global communications environment. That is what I want to drive.
VIA SATELLITE: When will the platform launch?
Claussen: Our first release is scheduled for this time next year. I met with the team and we want to do some more proofs of concept that we can discuss at SATELLITE next year. I think one of the things we do poorly in the industry is we wait until we have 90 or 100 percent of the product. What I would like to do, especially as the industry is changing toward a more standards-based approach is make iterations and bring people along. I am still unsure as to whether we, as an industry, are going to get serious about standardization. We say we are, but I am not so sure. We have been working in silos, in this bespoke network mindset for the last 20 years. Can we make the transition? I think we can if we show that it works along the way.
VIA SATELLITE: It almost feels like standardization is a dirty word within the satellite sector. But we talk about it a lot. Do you wonder just how committed the industry actually is to going down this route?
Claussen: You are right. It is a dirty word. That is what I say when I am on panels. We need to commit to this. We can’t just say it. We have to do it. The proof of why we should do it is in the telco arena. They have already proven this is the way to go. So, that is what I want to drive through iDirect’s next-generation technology, and let’s show people along the way it can work. It can interoperate. There is room for all of us. I think the other scary part of satellite right now is when you have GEO/LEO/MEO, you ask who is going to win. We are all going to win. All those orbits are necessary. When you bring the terrestrial network in, if they all work together the end user will get what they need and we will have a better ecosystem to deliver to the end users what they are going to need in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years.
VIA SATELLITE: Tell us a bit more about this new platform. What do you think will be the game changing aspect of it for you?
Claussen: We are going to be doing all the things we have been doing on the front end, such as roaming, global bandwidth management, resource orchestration, efficiency. But I really cut my teeth on the network side of the house. That is my default view — How is the network working on the backend of that? I think what is going to differentiate us is how we bring these disparate networks together, or that were disparate in the past. How do we bring GEO/LEO/MEO together? How do we bring the terrestrial environment together? And then how do we change our view on hardware, and what do we need from hardware as we move to a software defined network. We are going to drive standards. If someone like iDirect doesn’t drive standards into the ground systems, they may not have the focus that is necessary on them. We are going to focus on bringing the orchestration elements into the network. That is core. Then, we will move to hardware platforms that are more easily upgradable. I have heard it at every conference from our customers that for example, if they have to go to a ship or an airplane, you have type certifications, you have to take things out of service, and this is problematic. How do we get to a position where hardware is more easily reused or swapped out? These are the key themes.
VIA SATELLITE: When I talk to your customers, that is their number one frustration, the complications of swapping out tech. They want this to be much easier.
Claussen: That is the key point. I said this at World Satellite Business Week in Paris. We are addicted to hardware. I saw that from my DoD and MoD background and developing products for them. As soon as you come back to your leadership and say I am going to build something that is mostly software and I don’t care whose hardware it runs on, there is a bit of a panic. We are addicted to selling a box. You can create a network, a standards-based network and dominate a market without selling hardware, but you just have to think about it in the right way. Microsoft has done it. They dominate a market on other people’s hardware.
VIA SATELLITE: Is iDirect going to become more of a software company?
Claussen: I think that is where we have to go. The key thing you said is that our customers are asking us to do it. The ground systems segment has said we are not going to do this. The mentality is we are going to build boxes and sell them. But what makes up the network is the waveform, the network management system — not the box. iDirect is going to be that company that listens to its customers and we are going to drive toward those solutions.
VIA SATELLITE: Last year iDirect had the ‘New Ground’ campaign where the focus was on the developments in ground tech, rather than space. Are we going to see a revolution in ground tech?
Claussen: I don’t think we have had as many change variables in the market over the last 20 years as we have now. If we would have spoken around three years ago to the operators, I think we would have gotten a lot of skepticism on whether LEO is real. But LEO is real. We now have a number of non-traditional network providers putting up a lot of spacecraft with a lot of capability. That is one. Secondly, just on the GEO front, and with the other orbits, the amount of capacity that is going to be available is really going to drive down prices for megabits per second or connectivity that is going to bring users into the network which means we need to change some things on the backend to support those customers. We can either bring them into the network, bill for them, provision those things that you normally do. Then there is this call for open standards in a way I haven’t seen in awhile. What I am hoping is that these three variables that all didn’t exist together are going to help us change. I believe iDirect can drive that change.
VIA SATELLITE: You bring up a good point. Some of those non-traditional network players are disrupting the business model, building the technology in-house, even on the ground. If they continue to be successful, that could change things. What is your take on these issues?
Claussen: I think there will be enough demand for all players. A lot of consumers were out of reach. This was for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it costs too much, but with all the capacity, the prices have come down. Secondly, the terminals were too big. We have spent the last 20 years making the terminals smaller. Now we have some the size of a large dinner plate or even smaller. As those prices come down, the terminals become more accessible, cheaper, and smaller. I think we are going to get more people on the networks that are going to consume that capacity that is going into space. The question is can we provide them with a service they require, because if we don’t get the backend right, the network management systems, orchestration and operations, tying into the other networks, being able to roam across networks, they are just going to drop us. There will be challenges in the satellite market that you don’t have in the cellular market, but we need to get somewhere close to there.
VIA SATELLITE: What would represent success for you in this role?
Claussen: I inherited a great team – iDirect and Newtec are innovators. It’s in the DNA. On the technology side, I am sure we can drive success. What is going to be success for me is if the ‘new’ iDirect is leading the way in the ‘New Ground’ arena. Success would be driving the market towards a standards-based solution that brings all these networks together, and not just the multi-orbit networks, but the terrestrial network as well. So in the end we all benefit. VS